Journalists working in the United States of America received yet another chilling reminder of the powers of surveillance the country's security agencies enjoy. A new report claims that certain rules allow FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents to get journalists' phone records with relative ease.
According to The Intercept's report, the FBI uses national security letters to obtain these records. These letters allow the FBI to get detailed phone records of journalists with approval from just two internal officials, the report claims. It says these rules date back to 2013 and that changes were made to these rules in 2015 but it wasn't clear how the rules were changed.
Why should journalists worry about this? It's because it gives FBI the power to try and track down their sources without going through a proper judicial process, according to the report. This means that the security agency can put a journalist under surveillance as long as officials agree that it's relevant to a national security investigation, the report claims.
These guidelines weren't known in this much detail until this report was published by The Intercept, with only heavily redacted versions being available. The extent of surveillance that the FBI is authorised to conduct on journalists and their potential sources has only been revealed now. Changes to these rules are still not known and these date back at least to 2015, which means that the information is accurate only till almost two years ago.
The report claims that FBI issued nearly 13,000 national security letters in 2015, but said it's not known how many of these relate to journalists. If a company is asked for information using these letters, it is bound by law not to disclose that it received such a request. This restriction has been relaxed slightly and companies can now reveal some data points such as the number of requests received but even that may vary from case to case.